Saturday, June 12, 2021

Juneteenth, Brookline, & Black Civil War Soldiers

Brookline Juneteenth Celebration

Brookline's First Annual Juneteenth Celebration will take place on Saturday, June 19th. The celebration will kick off at 10 am with a Freedom March from the Florida Ruffin Ridley School to the Brookline Avenue Playground, where there will be music, dancing, children's games, and food throughout the day. 

But did you know that there is a Brookline connection, if only a tenuous one, to the original Juneteenth?

The Background
Juneteenth -- also known as Emancipation Day, Juneteenth Independence Day, and Black Independence Day -- marks the date in 1865 when Union general Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, far from the battlefields of the Civil War, and issued a proclamation freeing all enslaved African Americans in the state.

Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation had been issued almost two-and-a-half years before June 19, 1865, but slavery remained in place in areas still held by the South (and in some states that had remained in the Union but had not abolished slavery). In some places, slaveholders continued to hold African Americans in bondage even after the end of the war in April  (and in a few places even after June 19th).

On June 19th, Gen. Granger issued General Order No. 3, which stated

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property, between former masters and slaves and the connection heretofore existing between them, becomes that between employer and hired labor. The Freedmen are advised to remain at their present homes, and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts; and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.

The first anniversary of Granger's proclamation, on June 19, 1866, was celebrated in Texas with community-centered events. It became an annual tradition, called Juneteenth, though it did not become an official Texas holiday until 1980.  All but three states later recognized Juneteenth in one form or another, and it became a national holiday this month. (Massachusetts had recognized the day via a proclamation from Governor Deval Patrick in 2007; it became an official state holiday with a law passed by the legislature and signed by the Governor Charlie Baker last July.)

A Brookline Connection

On their way to Texas at the time of Granger's proclamation were at least five black soldiers listed as being from Brookline. They were members of the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry, an all-black regiment (led by white officers).

The Federal government, concerned about renegade Confederate forces escaping to Mexico, sent troops (including the 5th) to Texas to help prevent such border crossings. (They were also concerned about the role of French forces, sent to Mexico by Napoleon III, that had occupied the country and installed Austrian archduke Maximillian as emperor.)

The 5th Massachusetts didn't arrive in Texas until after June 19th and was gone well before the first spontaneous Juneteenth celebration erupted on the anniversary of Granger's proclamation one year later. It's also likely that the five men were not actually Brookline residents, but were listed that way because that is where they enlisted.

But even this small connection between Juneteenth, black soldiers, and Brookline is worthy of note and an opportunity to share a story of black history that is not widely known.

The 5th Massachusetts Cavalry
The 5th Massachusetts Cavalry was the third African American unit raised in Massachusetts. (The first two were the famed 54th Massachusetts Infantry and its sister regiment the 55th.) The cavalry regiment is sometimes confused with the 5th United States Colored Calvary, a different regiment raised several months later in Kentucky.

News item in the Springfield Republican, January 13, 1864, p4

There are two important distinctions between the two units. The first is that the 5th Massachusetts retained its state designation, one of only a few African American units to do so.

The second is that, unlike the 5th United States Colored Cavalry, the 5th Massachusetts -- like the 54th and 55 Massachusetts Infantry -- did not have the word "Colored" in its name (although it was sometimes appended in newspaper reports like the one above). That's because, as Governor John Andrew wrote to Lincoln's Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, "They are known on our books and rolls and orders only by their numbers and their arm of service, and not by their color."

All five men -- plus a sixth who had deserted before the regiment was sent to Texas -- enlisted in Brookline between March 14th and April 10th, 1864. The recruiting officer in all but one of their cases was George C. Burrill, a 21-year-old newly-commissioned lieutenant who had apparently not yet left to join his own regiment. (Burrill would be killed in battle in Virginia in May 1864.)

The six men who enlisted in the regiment in Brookline, with their ages and occupations (as listed in military records at the time they joined in the spring of 1864), were

  • Jose de Barros, 21, sailor
  • William Green, 25, seaman
  • James Guy, 29, mariner
  • John Lee, 27, laborer
  • Joseph Lee, 24, laborer
  • William Smith, 29, sailor (deserted)


John Lee died of disease on board the steamer Ashland on the way to Texas. He is the only African American among the 72 men listed on the 1884 Civil War memorial that is now displayed in the lobby of Town Hall. (His inclusion there is what clued me in to possible black Brookline soldiers in the war.)

John Lee of the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry on the Brookline Civil War Memorial of 1884, now in the lobby of Town Hall

Death of John Lee, as reported in the Boston Herald, June 29, 1865, p4

Only one the six men had their place of residence listed on their record, and that one lived in Boston, not Brookline. All listed their birthplace; only one was born in Massachusetts (in Boston). John and Joseph Lee, who were most likely brothers or cousins, were both born in Port Tobacco, Maryland, a town in a Union state known for its Confederate sympathies. They may have been enslaved before the war, but there is no evidence one way or the other.

While enlistments in the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry took place in many cities and towns in the Commonwealth, there may have been a particular reason that Brookline was one of these sites. Two of the white officers of the regiment were brothers William P. and Charles P. Bowditch. Their uncle William Ingersoll Bowditch was a prominent Brookline abolitionist whose house, still standing at 9 Toxteth Street, was a station on the Underground Railroad.

So, while celebrating Juneteenth on Saturday, remember John Lee, whose name is on the memorial in the lobby of Town Hall, and the other black men who got their start as soldiers in Brookline and were sent to Texas to help assure that freedom gained for enslaved people in Texas by the war was protected and preserved.

NOTE: A new book on the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry by John Warner, Massachusetts State Archivist, is scheduled to be published later this year or early next year. His doctoral dissertation at Boston College about the regiment has been very helpful in this research. I met with him earlier this month.